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Activism

Knife crime: Can grassroots succeed where government has failed?

There is no easy solution to knife crime in London but with support from ELBA, grassroots organisations are helping change things. They explain how brighter futures can be achieved

In an intervention centre converted from unwanted offices behind the looming towers of Canary Wharf – where six- and seven-figure salaries are par for the course – a lively discussion is taking place. The participants are five leaders representing local organisations.

But the topic of conversation is not bonuses and mergers: it’s knife crime.

According to the ONS, 14,725 knife crimes – including 74 fatalities – were recorded in London in 2018, making it one of the worst years on record for the capital. In response to the spike in youth violence, London mayor Sadiq Khan has argued that a community-based, public health approach is the best means of tackling the problem. This is where ELBA steps in.

The outreach charity works with local businesses and grassroots organisations to enable projects that help prevent vulnerable young people from getting caught up in knife crime, and instead opens them up to jobs and other opportunities.

The meeting ELBA hosts today is both passionate and constructive, as one might expect on such a complex and emotive issue. Chaired by ELBA CEO Ian Parkes, taking part are: Lucky Nessa and Darren Way, co-founders of anti-violence intervention organisation Streets of Growth, working with young adults caught up in gangs and violence; Dez Brown, founder and CEO of Spark2Life, which primarily works with medium- to high-risk offenders; Paul Leslie, CEO of Rights and Equalities in Newham, which develops projects that address equalities issues and help young people flourish; and Amani Simpson, founder of community interest company Aviard Inspires, which organises media and events opportunities to empower young people. At the age of 21 he was stabbed seven times and has since produced a powerful short film about his experiences.

If central and local government are really serious about solving the problem, they argue, then they’d do well to listen to those on the front line: the people who’ve lived it. Here they get to the heart of the matter.

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Forming relationships is the fundamental building block for tackling street violence…

Lucky Nessa: Without relationships, you can’t get lasting change with young people. But they do take time. It can take months before a young person doesn’t shut the door in your face and finally says hello.

Many grassroots organisations can no longer be classed as third sector. We’ve become the main organisations holding a lot of young people and families together

Dez Brown: To earn the right to speak to these individuals, you need relationships. There’s no point in being there only when there’s a problem. You’ve got to be in their lives throughout that journey. It’s an issue of trust.

Darren Way: I don’t think many professionals really understand what we mean when we say relationships. We have lots of practitioners that come into our boroughs, say they want to work long-term with young people and then can disappear after a few months when their post ends without as much as a goodbye.

DB: When it comes to the system, I’d say a lot of it is really transactional. It’s not about the person, it’s more about the process. Charities are no longer picking up the slack, they are the frontline…

LN: Many grassroots organisations can no longer be classed as third sector. We’ve become the main organisations holding a lot of young people and families together, who otherwise might be just another statistic flashed up on BBC London News. But they are not statistics. They are people.

Paul Leslie: It can be really frustrating engaging with statutory services. I often ask myself: how long do we have to keep saying the same things? How many times will it take local authorities to learn that voluntary sector are key partners in all of this?

DB: When you go to those meetings, you get pulled into the politics. And politics can be discouraging.

Amani Simpson: I’ve not been doing this very long, but I’ve already been in a lot of rooms where there’s been absolutely no youth presence, but lots of decisions being made about young people.

PL: I’m both a hypocrite and a realist. A little bit of you dies when you sit at these tables and have the same conversations, but I suppose it’s better to negotiate from around the table and in the room than from the outside. Home life is more complex than simply blaming the parents…

DB: You’ve got to look at a young person’s whole family. That might mean volunteer mentors going to speak to mum or dad, because there are some great parents out there, but they feel emotionally and psychologically compromised at the thought of going to the police and criminalising their child.

LN: A lot of young people we meet come from households where there’s a mix of mental health and income challenges. But a lot of the time society finds it easier to blame it on the parents.

AS: I think there’s a lot of lazy media coverage around bad parenting. There are always different levels to it. My parents always loved me as much as they could. Schools and communities have an important role to play…

LN: If we want a public health approach, it isn’t just about the police. You have to put the communities and young people at the centre – otherwise it will always be a flawed process.

DB: I think local authorities also need to understand that there’s a lot of goodwill within communities. Schools have an important role to play, too.

PL: I would say that schools need to stop excluding large numbers of pupils. They need to do something different around how they deal with challenging behaviour and disaffection. PRUs are not the only option.

LN: Mentoring and coaching in schools can help, but it’s got to happen at the very beginning. Because lots of teachers are still unaware of the levels of grooming going on. Real job opportunities can save young people…

DB: If you tell young guys looking to get out that they need to do a three-week course that might get them an interview at the end of it, they’re not interested. It needs to happen immediately. If a job genuinely has the power to save someone, I need to be able to say, I can get you a job tomorrow. It’s a three-month, fixed-contract role you can walk straight into, and I’ll mentor and support you through it. It might be only four out of 10 guys that stick with the job and stay out of trouble. But that’s four more than youn had before.

Ian Parkes: Businesses do want to help, and there is much they can do: mentoring, placements, prevention work in schools and jobs. We need to find ways to let them do more.

PL: Where is the innovation from business to the communities? Businesses innovate all the time. It’s part of how they grow and make money, yet I rarely see that innovation going back towards the communities and grassroots organisations and individuals that need it. They should be asking: how can we enable young people to get into sustainable jobs?

DW: My message to the people leading big businesses and regeneration projects is simple: let’s together go beyond quick-fix initiatives, how about designing us and our vital intervention work into your environmental business model long term?

Businesses can get involved in ELBA’s Everyone’s Business initiative supporting grassroots organisations like these, and through them young people.

Contact: BrighterFutures@elba-1.org.uk #ELBABrighterFutures

Thank you to our sponsor T. Rowe Price for supporting us in the development of this content and ongoing partnerships.

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